Religious freedom can't trump student health

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In April 2019, while the Australian Law Reform Commission began investigating the minefield that is discrimination versus religious freedom, I went to get my routine pap smear. While Christian organisations lobbied to protect their freedom, I was called back. 'Stevie, unfortunately you've had an abnormal pap. You have HPV 18, with high grade cervical cell abnormalities. Did you get the Gardasil vaccine in high school?'

Doctor administering cervical cancer vaccine — stock photo (BSIP / Getty)The independent Christian school I attended seldom comes to mind. Years of exposure to the melting-pot of cosmopolitan Melbourne has distanced me from the sheltered 17 year old I was in 2006. But I do remember that newsletter.

I completed year 12 the same year that Australia's National HPV Vaccination Program began offering a free opt-in Gardasil vaccination in Australian schools. It protected against four types of HPV, including 16 and 18, which cause 70 to 90 percent of cervical cancers, by offering primary prevention against precancerous and cancerous lesions developing on the cervix, as well as protecting against other vaginal, vulva and anal cancers. In 2007, the official school-based program was rolled out nationally. But I remember the wording of the 2006 newsletter clearly. It stated that Gardasil was an optional vaccine for girls who were sexually active.

My school accommodated a range of theological perspectives, but all of them converged on one point: sex was an activity reserved for marriage. This is unsurprising; it remains standard across most branches of Christianity. In my school years, a particularly vigorous branch of American Pentecostalism was in vogue. While our sex-ed program wasn't strictly abstinence only, the rhetoric featured prominently. Anti-promiscuity literature like Josh McDowell's True Love Waits was widely distributed. Local churches offered 'purity rings' if we agreed to abstain from sex until marriage. In this idealised world, we'd all have only one sexual partner. There would be no need for the HPV vaccine.

This is the context in which we young female students took that consent form home, in which we were offered to leave class for the vaccination. I remember the snide remarks kids are wont to make; the names for girls rumoured to be 'doing it'. The conclusion, if not expressly stated, was abundantly clear. To return the signed form would be to out ourselves. It would indicate we were sexually active, or that we envisioned a future where we might have more than one sexual partner.

Whether we were or weren't having sex yet, it was practically unthinkable to do this. No, we weren't actively prevented from having the vaccine. We were offered it. But within the moral straitjacketing of this context, how were we — 17 and 18 year old teenagers — supposed to advocate for ourselves? It was up to the adults of the community to do that; to advocate for our health regardless of religious convictions. Instead, the bare minimum was done. The uncomfortable moral overtures of the health initiative meant the less that was said, the better. I do not know of anybody who received Gardasil that year.

Fast-forwarding to 2019, school-based programs are the primary method of delivery for Gardasil 9. It's administered to boys and girls aged 12 to 13 years; the realistic age to vaccinate against sexually transmitted viruses. The National HPV Vaccination Program website states: 'Schools play a vital role in informing students, their parents and teachers about the vaccine, and positively influencing its uptake.' While I cannot speak for my school or any other independent Christian school today, this positive influence was unquestionably absent in 2006.

 

"Unpicking the stronghold of sexual morality entrenched in women raised Christian, to understand just how insistently slut-shaming informs our actions and is drummed into our psyches, is a task that takes years."

 

During my biopsy, the gynaecologist asked why I hadn't had Gardasil. I was within the catchment period. If I had attended another school, I — like most of my friends who graduated in 2006 — would likely have received the vaccination. Why hadn't I had it in years that had elapsed since?

Lying there with my legs in the stirrups, I experienced emotions of self-blame, of embarrassment. But unpicking the stronghold of sexual morality entrenched in women raised Christian, to understand just how insistently slut-shaming informs our actions and is drummed into our psyches, is a task that takes years. That newsletter had stayed with me long after I graduated.

Christian schools are currently pushing against legislation which 'hampers their ability to teach according to their values'. The governing body Christian Schools Australia Ltd explains that 'religious beliefs held by the members of the church and school communities' are what inform the ethos and educational practises of schools. This statement also encapsulates the influence Christian schools retain over issues extrinsic to curriculum. While Christian schools lobby for legislation which 'safeguards those holding minority views', the question that remains for me is: Who is safeguarding the students? Who is protecting them, when the attitudes of a community cause real and measurable harm?

Last month, while the commission into religious freedom exemptions churned on, I had surgery to remove stage 3 precancerous cervical cells — the highest level before cancer. The gynaecologist, nurses, anaesthetist and surgeon's wages were paid by taxpayers. Taxpayers paid for the pervasive ideologies of my school, in which the free reign of minority views worked against public health initiatives and discouraged a vaccination that could have prevented this surgery. Whether through negligence or covert social pressure, the end result is the same.

This is the reality of the influence Christian schools retain under current legislation. Faith-based schools are given the right to maintain teachings around sexuality, but that shouldn't be given higher priority than students' wellbeing and access to accurate information. It's why I fell through the gaps. It's why 13 years later I — and the public health system — are dealing with the consequences.

 

 

Stevie TroyStevie Troy has a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. She runs a small digital media business and is studying the Juris Doctor at La Trobe University.

Main image: Doctor administering cervical cancer vaccine — stock photo (BSIP / Getty)

Topic tags: Stevie Troy, Gardasil, cervical cancer, religious schools, Catholic schools

 

 

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Existing comments

Contraceptive and sexual health information was very thin - non-extant in fact - in Catholic secondary schools in Victoria in the 1960s, Stevie. It was considered that 'nice boys and girls' didn't do 'it' until they were in their virginal marriage bed. God knows how many unwanted pregnancies and STDs were a result of that. Too many IMHO. I was in a very good Jesuit school till Year 10 and then transferred to an excellent Anglican boys' grammar school. There was no sex instruction in the Catholic place but there was at the Anglican one. The difference between the places was that the Catholic place was a wee bit of a religious and moral hothouse, with all its strengths and weaknesses, whilst the Anglican one, founded by an Old Harrovian bishop, was more relaxed but certainly not morally lax. It was actually accepted at the Anglican place that certain boys were homosexual and they were accepted as such. Sex was not on the agenda and would've been dealt with disciplinarily. There was no corporal punishment, so expulsion would've been the ultimate sanction. In my time no one was expelled. I do prefer the tolerant approach.
Edward Fido | 13 August 2019


I'm sorry to hear of your experience Stevie. It is unfortunate how some 'Christians' do miss the point. More interested perhaps in keeping up appearances/ moralising than capturing the spirit and generosity of Jesus' way. But even if one is 'virtuous' in abstaining from pre-marital sex, it is possible to get HPV infection from one's partner. Lets hope things have progressed towards universal uptake of the vaccine since 2006.
May | 13 August 2019


Many parents who send their children to Christian schools are not actively involved in their church. However, they want their children to have an education where faith is an active component of the children's learning. This creates a situation where the parents may have some difficulty in advocating for their child in a sensitive area such as sexual health. Be that as it may, every parent has an obligation to their child where health is concerned. Stevie's experience has led to an adverse health outcome: something that possibly could have been avoided if open communication and empathy were given precedence.
Pam | 14 August 2019


Slut shaming is not always subtle. In 2013, several Catholic bishops in Canada said that the papilloma vaccine "sends a message that early sexual intercourse is allowed." In Colombia in 2014, the Platform for Life director, Jesus Magaña, discouraged Catholics from using the schools based papilloma vaccination program because it "promotes promiscuity in adolescents." There was a similar campaign against the use of condoms even from Pope Benedict as one of the means of combating HIV/AIDS. Humanae Vitae followed St Thomas Aquinas's doctrine of double effect in accepting the use of the pill for legitimate medical conditions despite an accidental effect being a contraceptive one. One would have thought that condoms, particularly where one partner is already infected sits within the four corners of that doctrine in the case of HIV/AIDS. In Argentina, the bishops lobbied the government to take out the word "condoms" from public health warnings because it too would encourage promiscuity. One wonders how many HIV infected babies were born as a result the Church's abandonment of its own doctrine. It is not surprising that the Church is losing followers in educated countries.
Kieran Tapsell | 14 August 2019


A very subjective and skewed point of view. What about personal responsibility.
Angela | 14 August 2019


Agree, Angela. However, the girls at the Christian school in this article and their parents had the option to seek vaccination in private with confidentiality from their GP. That said, however, the handling of the offer to vaccinate the girls above by their school was pathetic and put them at potential risk when surely the school authorities were well aware that virtually all of their girls would one day become "sexually active" and deserved protection from potential disease.
john frawley | 14 August 2019


Bravo John Frawley! Most sane commentary from someone who is both a believing Catholic and a qualified medical doctor. I do wish the professional clerics would leave this sort of commentary to people like you, with real world qualifications and experience. We do not live in a monastery and much clerical commentary is of the 'both feet in mid air' variety.
Edward Fido | 14 August 2019


To save one's soul but to fail to care for one's body is to give priority to one aspect of who we are at the cost of another. The human person is a unity of body, mind and spirit. The aim of Christian education ought to be to inculcate in each student this fundamental principle of personhood - Our body is the way in which our soul and our spirit, with their great possibilities and aspirations, can express themselves. What a profound goal for all education professionals.
Uncle Pat | 14 August 2019


The christian schools my children were involved with have all had a mix of christian students and troubled kids that were enrolled after falling foul of state schools. The christian kids were in the minority and staff worked overtime to get all students across the line. Aboriginal boarding students even had access to implamon contraceptives to try and ensure they made it to yr 12 without falling pregnant during breaks. I didn't see or hear of slut shaming - this was education with christian compassion and hope in the real world of students who were still working out where they stood on issues of faith. Religious freedom means they can at least hear the gospel and experience it - and if you don't want that you're free to take your kid to another school
Matthew Davis | 14 August 2019


Catholic schools routinely vaccinate for the HPV virus, not as a means of encouraging students into licentious sexual practices, but as a precaution against the reckless sexual behaviour of some men who may be much more powerful than them and against whose predatory sexual behaviour many young women are highly vulnerable. That is surely as it should be.
Dr Michael FURTADO | 15 August 2019


Please don't fundamentalists to hijack the word "Christian". Many Christians, and I think, even many Christian schools do not subscribe to the kind of teaching and moral pressure you experienced, nor the kind of political lobbying going on at present. I want to hear more form progressive Christians, who, at present, mostly appear to allow the fundamentalists centre-stage.
Anne McMenamin | 17 August 2019


What a terrible shame it is that you are not aware that Gardasil vaccine does not work in preventing cervical cancer and that it has caused untold damage and death to many young women and males across the world. Please do further research into the actual ingredients in the vaccine, which includes harmful aluminium, borax and Polysorbate 80 believed to cause sterility. The health risks are far higher in the vaccinated.
Bev Pattenden | 18 August 2019


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